The Whale that just kept swimming … away

A wild Omura’s whale (Credit: Salvatore Cerchio et al/Royal Society Open Science)

Whales are the largest aquatic mammals on Earth, so it’s hard to believe that the first official sighting of the Omura’s Whales only happened recently near Madagascar. In 2003 Japanese scientists identified this whale as a new species; however, it was based on skeletal specimens and genetic tests.

Omura’s Whales can grow up to be 12m long and have asymmetrical bodies. The light and dark patches and stripes that extend from the right eye to the pectoral fin make them uniquely beautiful from other whale species. Genetic tests in 2014 confirmed that the first live population had been found, but the Omura’s whale had been spotted 44 times before. They were commonly misidentified as Byrde whales or small fin whales because Omura’s whales “never show both their heads and dorsal fins together, and never lift their tails out of water during a dive,” making it difficult to identify them.

“I was excited because I knew we had found Omura’s whales,” says [Salvator] Cerchio, [one of the lead research biologists]. But the whales were thousands of kilometers further west than they were thought to roam. “Some teammates thought it might be a new species and began to think of new names.”

Illustration of an Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) (Credit: Rebecca Robinson/NPL)

Unlike many other whales, Omura’s whales almost always travel alone, and their low-pitched calling suggests that they socialize in loose groupings. It remains unclear what this species eats, but researchers have seen them lunge-feeding, an action in which the mammal darts (if such a large animal can be said to dart) upwards to the surface of the water and swallows its prey.

Confirming the existence of the Omura’s whale is a great step for the scientific community and more information on this species remains to be discovered. Unfortunately, there are human influences, such as anthropogenic noise, that threaten the continuation of the research. Hopefully these will not drive the Omura’s whales to swim even greater distances and slow down the research process on these colossal creatures even further.

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